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 user 2005-05-25 at 12:13:00 pm Views: 61
  • #9706
    Earth’s species feel the squeeze

    If we continue with current rates of species extinction, we
    will have no chance of rolling back poverty and the lives of all humans will be

    That is the stark warning to come out of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
    (MA), the most comprehensive audit of the health of our planet to date.

    Organisms are disappearing at something like 100 to 1,000 times the
    “background levels” seen in the fossil record.

    Scientists warn that removing so many species puts our own existence at risk.

    It will certainly make it much harder to lift the world’s poor out of
    hardship given that these people are often the most vulnerable to ecosystem
    degradation, the researchers say.

    The message is written large in Ecosystems and Human Well-being: the
    Biodiversity Synthesis Report.

    Biodiversity and human well-being just cannot be

    Dr Kaveh Zahedi, World Conservation
    Monitoring Centre
    It is the latest in a series of detailed documents to come out of
    the MA, a remarkable tome drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over
    four years.

    The MA pulls together the current state of knowledge and in its latest
    release this week focuses specifically on biodiversity and the likely impacts
    its continued loss will have on human society.

    Even faster

    In one sense, and precisely because it is a synthesis, the new document
    contains few surprises. It is, nonetheless, a startling – and depressing – read.


    The last 50 years have seen the biggest biodiversity upheaval in
    human history
    Over half the world’s biomes (vegetation types) have experienced
    about 20-50% conversion to human use
    The rates of change have been greatest in tropical and
    sub-tropical dry forests
    Some 35% of mangroves and about 20% of corals have gone Across a range of taxonomic groups, species are in decline

    A third of all amphibians, a fifth of mammals and an eighth of all
    birds are now threatened with extinction. It is thought 90% of the large
    predatory fish in the oceans have gone since the beginning of industrial

    And these are just the vertebrates – the species we know most about. Ninety
    percent of species, maybe more, have not even been catalogued by science yet.

    “Changes in biodiversity were more rapid in the last 50 years than at any
    time in human history,” said Dr Georgina Mace, the director of science at the
    Institute of Zoology, in London, UK, and an MA synthesis team member.

    “And when you look to the future, to various projections and scenarios, we
    expect those changes to continue and in some circumstances to accelerate.

    “Future models are very uncertain but all of them tell us that as we move
    into the next 100 years, we’ll be seeing extinction rates that are a thousand to
    10,000 times those in the fossil record.”

    ‘Invisible services’

    One feature that sets the MA apart from previous projects of its kind is the
    way it defines ecosystems in terms of the “services”, or benefits, that people
    get from them.

    Some of these services are obvious – they are “provisional”: timber for
    building; fish for food; fibres to make clothes.

    At another level, these services are largely unseen – the
    recycling of nutrients, pollination and seed dispersal, climate control, the
    purification of water and air – but without these “support” and “regulating”
    systems, life on Earth would soon collapse.

    And although we may be some distance away from an “end scenario”, there is no
    doubt the rapid expansion of the human population and its high consumption of
    natural resources have taken a heavy toll on ecosystems and the organisms that
    inhabit them.

    “Biodiversity and human well-being just cannot be separated,” said Dr Kaveh
    Zahedi, the officer in charge of the Unep World Conservation Monitoring Centre
    in Cambridge, UK.

    “We are befitting from a whole range of services that up until now have
    almost been invisible; we haven’t considered them. And then they suddenly pop up
    on our radar screens – we have a tragedy in Asia with a tsunami and we realise
    that those mangroves that were cut down had a value; they provided a service in
    terms of coastal protection.”

    Similar picture

    Land-use (habitat) changes, climate change, pollution and over-exploitation –
    they are all pushing down on biodiversity and the pressure shows little sign of

    “The magnitude of the challenge of slowing the rate of biodiversity loss is
    demonstrated by the fact that most of the direct drivers of biodiversity loss
    are projected to either remain constant or increase in the near future,” the MA
    biodiversity synthesis report says.

    If you do things the right way, if you chose the
    right options for poverty alleviation, you can also maximise biodiversity and

    Dr Georgina Mace, Institute of
    Removing huge swathes of forest has a blunt and clear impact on
    biodiversity by taking out the habitat formerly occupied by plants and animals.
    But there are subtle changes taking place, too.

    The distribution of species around the globe is becoming more homogenous, as
    invasive creatures hitch a ride on fast human transport and trade routes.

    Genetic diversity, also, is declining rapidly.

    This is most obvious in domesticated plants and animals where the pursuit of
    high yields and the pressures of global markets have pushed farmers towards a
    limited range of cultivars and breeds.

    And so it is not simply that species are fewer in number, their changed
    circumstances may also have reduced their resilience and their ability to cope
    with future change.

    Possible tensions

    In 2002, world governments, through the Convention on Biological Diversity,
    set themselves the target of making a “substantial reduction in the rate of loss
    of biological diversity” by 2010.

    The MA illustrates just how tough it will be to meet that target. What is
    more, there may even be occasions when progress towards that target conflicts
    with the even loftier 2015 Millennium Development Goals of cutting into world
    hunger and poverty, and improving healthcare.


    Biodiversity and human well-being are inextricably linked
    Humans benefit from ecosystem services, but unsustainable use
    drives biodiversity loss
    People living in rural areas in developing nations are often
    most dependent on biodiversity
    And they are usually most vulnerable to ecosystem service
    They cannot afford to move out or import new services

    A classic example is the development of rural road networks – a
    common feature of hunger reduction strategies – which are likely also to
    accelerate rates of biodiversity loss by fragmenting habitats and by opening up
    new areas to unsustainable harvests.

    This sort of thing has been well documented in Africa where the bushmeat
    trade that endangers many species follows the development of transport

    “This is a very important issue,” said Dr Mace. “It’s clear there are going
    to have to be trade-offs and compromises but it’s not a simple relationship.
    It’s not a case that you can have 20% poverty and 80% biodiversity.

    “If you do things the right way, if you chose the right options for poverty
    alleviation, you can also maximise biodiversity and sustainability.”

    And Dr Neville Ash, another MA synthesis team member, added: “The bottom line
    is that you cannot achieve long-term poverty alleviation without sustainability.

    “In order to reduce hunger and poverty and increase access to clean water and
    sanitation, we need to have a strong base of environmental sustainability which
    is providing these services on which people rely for their well-being.”

    Little time

    It is very evident, too, that we need to get a move on.

    The wheels of global governance turn slowly, as was seen with the Kyoto
    Protocol on climate change which finally entered into force in February after
    many years of negotiation.

    The MA has identified possible solutions – from significant shifts in
    consumption patterns and better education, to the adoption of new technologies
    and a large increase in the areas enjoying protection.

    And if some of the ideas sound “old hat”, such as the abolition of farming
    subsidies that drive crop production to the detriment of field biodiversity –
    that is because they are.

    “Most of the approaches to achieving more sympathetic management of the
    natural environment and the conservation of biodiversity – I think we and
    governments know them already,” commented Graham Wynne, the chief executive of
    the UK bird conservation group, the RSPB.

    “The real challenge is to deploy them more extensively and more

    “And you can’t get away from the fact that we simply need more money.

    “The sums of money we throw at the environment in the West are relatively
    modest; and the sums of money the West is prepared to devote to developing
    countries is pitiful.”